Ralph Vasami Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Nearly half a century ago, long before Ralph Vasami came aboard, Universal Weather and Aviation was a fledgling company in an infant industry, providing weather plans for corporate flights. But as corporate aviation grew, Universal had to adapt, tacking on other services in a grow-as-you-go fashion. The result was more of a loose collection of departments than a unified company. When Vasami took over as president two years ago, he saw the need to unify Universal to take advantage of its size and experience in a market flooded with competitors. The steps he took have helped Universal become a global power in corporate aviation services, with 52 locations worldwide and more than $281 million in annual sales. Smart Business spoke to Vasami about how he communicates his vision and creates passion.

Get it together. We grew up extremely siloed in our history. Every division was doing their own thing, so trying to align the organization has really been a significant challenge.

For the first 10 years we existed, we did nothing but weather, so we kind of grew up on weather flight planning. Then we started adding a whole bunch of services as the market started to grow and the aircrafts themselves became more sophisticated and able to travel longer distances.

We just bolted on services as needed, with functional leaders over those services. Everybody just sort of took care of their own backyard. Then you wake up one day and everybody has different databases, different standards, different commitments to quality. One base isn’t talking to the other, one group is doing it this way, another is doing it that way.

In order to control costs and to really excel and differentiate in the market against an increasing number of competitors, we really had to align our efforts to take advantage of our touchpoints and size around the globe, to provide consistent service no matter where a customer ends up. You can’t do that unless you are aligned with some standards and consistencies.

Establish a reason for change. To change it, I’ve followed the principles of change management. You start with a compelling reason of why you have to change. In our case, that compelling reason was that there was no way Universal was going to take our service and our value proposition to another level unless we were united in our efforts. There is no way you can facilitate 52 locations around the world with standards and expectations of service and facilitate all of these third parties and variables if you’re not aligned.

Basically, we’re letting everybody know that we’re not going to move forward unless we do. So you had to create some compelling reason to get people off dead center.

How we did it was by creating a real vision and direction for the company. We aligned our corporate, division and employees goals to reach that vision. We tried to make it come alive in the organization by aligning everybody’s goals, daily work tasks, projects, you name it, to the achievement of that vision, that goal.

Measure your goals. We’ve taken our company goals from the 80,000-foot corporate vision level and tried to bring it down to a granular, operational level through employee “SMART” goals. It’s an acronym for a program we adopted two years ago, Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely in all of our goal-setting.

The first thing we do is we share what’s working. What are our strengths, and what are our challenges? Then, from what is working and what are the challenges, we task our management to go off and come up with their goals in order to address how we’re going to handle weaknesses and address challenges.

We have a booklet that was distributed to all employees that shows them the vision, the corporate goals, how we’re aligning the organization through SMART goals, what is our value proposition. Every employee has this, even at risk of it leaving the building and ending up in competitors’ hands. We felt it was worth the risk.

We have one group that’s our largest group. They’ve taken it down not only to SMART goals, but to an actual scorecard. They’re having monthly meetings with management going through their specific scorecard, which also has their measurements built in.

There are other parts of the company that their SMART goals are still being reviewed with people. But it may not be monthly; it might be every six weeks, every two months.

Tell stories. Part of employee communication we’ve found very effective is turning this stuff into storytelling, real-life examples, ranging back from the founding fathers of the company and how they did it in the ’60s, to how we’re doing it in the early 21st century with all the technology and everything else.

That is one of the essential skills any business leader has to have, that ability to communicate the vision and create passion around it. Otherwise, it’s just words.

People can relate to the storytelling. I tell real-life stories of my customer service experiences I had working at the Ritz Carlton, and the point I make when I do it is, ‘What’s going to make someone pay $700 for a room versus $300?’

Every hotel you go to has a bed and a shower curtain. But it’s the people, and the service that really differentiates the Ritz Carlton.

When they hear that kind of stuff, and then you ask what customer service experiences you’ve had that either pissed you off or made you happy, now they can start to relate about how our customers feel when they work with Universal, versus just a bunch of theory and opinion. That kind of storytelling can be very powerful.

Value your relationships. The bottom line is everybody wants to make money, but the way we really define success is our strong financial results via customer and employee satisfaction and loyalty.

We’re willing to lose on a transaction, to be honest with you, to win the war versus a battle. Customer satisfaction and loyalty drive our financial results. We don’t look to make short-term profits at the expense of a long-term relationship with a customer.

The loyalty factor is so important. So whatever a customer wants, within reason, they’re going to get, even if we take a short-term hit on the financials.

HOW TO REACH: Universal Weather and Aviation, www.universalweather.com